The Height of Absurdity: Hilda’s Abbey 11.6
29 May, 2018 by katelaity
‘I was delighted to receive your note this morning, Miss Popkin. It is seldom that we have visitors so eager to explore the history of our building.’ The abbess, whom we learned was named Matilda (which gave me a funny turn of memory, thinking of the Mad Lewis), proved to be both knowledgeable and welcoming to a curious group like ourselves. She and Tansy were soon thick as thieves talking about medieval history and such peculiar topics.
‘The monastery was built here in the seventh century,’ the Abbess Matilda said leading them along the aisle. ‘You have no doubt heard of the famous Hild?’
‘She who discovered Bede, the first poet of England?’ Tansy said with a strange sort of reverence. This was all quite out of my depth. If we’d turn to lurid adventure novels I might be on firmer footing. Architecture was beyond me. Poetry, too. Sometimes I did wonder how Tansy and I ever became friends.
Yet despite all his knowledge—or her, as the case may be—he never made a fellow feel small about their lack of same. Proper gentleman—or woman—in that respect, which I can’t say the same of for some of my school fellows. Nolan in particular was inclined to lord it over anyone he could for merely reading ahead a week in lessons.
I felt sufficiently grateful to bend an ear with the thought of learning something of value about the adventure we were doubtless going to plunge ourselves into. With any luck at all it would not involve fleeing from armies or dabbling in subterranean worlds. I had really had enough adventure for a while. Fortunately there was little alarming that ever happened in a church, as far as I could recall.
‘The aisles were rebuilt in the fifteenth century, repairs much needed from the intervening years and probably about due for further repairs now,’ the abbess said with a wistful air. No doubt we’d be touched for donations before we left.
‘But the twelfth century building is still more or less guiding the principles of the current edifice?’ Tansy was recording the details in her memorandum book which was never far from hand. What she would do with all these notes, I was never certain, yet she always seemed to have the knowledge at hand whenever something odd came up in conversation—a most unnerving habit.
‘Yes, though the tower is later. Thirteenth century,’ the abbess said, a hand to the mortar as if patting the stones for their hard work. ‘Some restoration work was done on it…oh, some twenty years ago or more. When I had first come to Hartlepool, they were still in the midst of it. I learned a great deal from talking with the masons.’
There was a great deal more discussion as we sauntered around the church: buttresses, flying or stationary as I suppose the non-flying type must be called, capitals, lancets, spandrels and more. The Galilee chapel, the nave, the chancel—words I mostly recall from diagrams of cathedrals but of course this wasn’t a cathedral. In vain I tried to look interested and then to at least look not entirely eaten up by boredom, though at last I longed to sit down in a pew and have a good contemplation about life, the universe and everything. Mostly I was thinking about how thankful I would be to have some fish for my supper.
‘I think my friend is about to fall asleep,’ I heard Tansy say, which jarred me from the somnolent pose I had adopted.
‘I’m awake,’ I protested. This only made both ladies chuckle.
‘What is this then?’ Tansy quizzed me, pointing to a stone thing.
I sighed with a great show of exasperation. ‘It is a late seventh-century grave marker with runic inscriptions that say…ah… I have forgotten.’
The abbess smiled at me, all beneficence. ‘That’s because we have not mentioned yet what it says. Can you make it out?’
We all leaned forward to peer at the stone. Because Tansy wrote it down with great care for accuracy and then changed the runic letters to modern ones, I can reproduce it for you here:
ic swaþe hwilum
Which is not to say that I can translate it myself. Tansy had a go at it with some help from various learned folk of Oxford and Cambridge and it seems more or less to mean:
I oftwhile obscure
those tracks of mine
from all manner of man
Naturally, one can hardly begin to say what that actually means: poetry is such a strange art that I do not believe one can argue for there ever being a correct answer (my schoolmasters, obviously, did not agree on that point). Tansy, however, grew quite excited upon reading the mysterious runes because of course, this would lead to our next adventure.
How I have come to loathe that word.